Panda pals to barely speaking: How Australia’s relationship with China fell apart

Australia and China have been headed for blows for years - so how bad will they get?

Australia and China have been headed for blows for years - so how bad will they get?

Accusations of wine dumping. The Prime Minister seeking veto powers over state deals. A Chinese diplomat slamming Australians for ‘whining’.

The Sino-Australian relationship is undoubtedly strained.

But the disintegration of this important relationship was not sparked by Australia pushing for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, said research fellow at the Asia Institute of The University of Melbourne, Melissa Conley Tyler.

“If you look at it in the really long scale, it’s almost 50 years of ups and downs,” Dr Conley Tyler said.

“This has been building a long time. There was a high point in 2014-15 and after that, the relationship started deteriorating.”

In 2014, Australia-China relations reached its high point.

The Liberal government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott secured the China-Australia free trade agreement and secured the relationship.

President Xi Jinping visited Canberra and became the second Chinese leader to address the Australian Parliament after Hu Jintao in 2003.

President Xi Jinping delivers a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2014. Photo: AAP

Not allies, but not enemies, the nations forged a “strong trade and economic complementarities” that had the promise of a bright future.

But it was short-lived, Dr Conley Tyler said.

“Since then, it’s been pretty much all downhill on a political level,” she said.

“It’s a vicious cycle where you have negative perceptions on both sides.”

In 2016, claims over the South China Sea got heated and Australia sided with its traditional allies Japan and the US, enraging China.

Issuing a joint statement, Australia called for China to recognise an international ruling it had no historical claim to the island in the region.

But it took a Four Corners episode on Chinese interface, an outspoken senator and a PM playing hardball to send the relationship over the edge.

In 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” for justifying new legislation to curb foreign interference after Four Corners ran an investigation that alleged the Asian powerhouse had attempted to influence Australian politicians.

When introducing the legislation Mr Turnbull maintained there was evidence of foreign interference, saying then-Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, who has twice stood down from the senate over China-related controversies, was a ‘classic case’ of interference.

PM Malcolm Turnbull with President Xi Jinping in 2016. Photo: Getty

Switching between Mandarin and English, Mr Turnbull followed this by saying: “Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words: ‘The Chinese people have stood up’. It was an assertion of sovereignty, it was an assertion of pride.”

“And we stand up and so we say, the Australian people stand up.”

The war of words began.

Dr Conley Tyler said Mr Turnbull could ‘‘not have been more offensive’’.

“It was not so much the fact the legislation was presented, but the way it was presented,” she said.

“Prime Minister Turnbull said this was Australia standing up for itself, but he said it in Mandarin in a famous phrase used by Chairman Mao. It’s hard to imagine how you could be more offensive.

“That definitely got their attention.”

These high-profile tensions, mixed with ongoing issues around interference and dumping, have been eroding the relationship before COVID-19.

Mix that with increasing concerns about cyber attacks from the Chinese government and a string of alleged human rights abuses, including China’s treatment of Uyghurs, meant the two countries have been in a diplomatic freeze since 2016.

The CCP claims Uyghurs are living a ‘free and normal’ life in the camps. Photo: Chinese TV

The international community condemned China for its treatment of Uyghurs.

“From the Australian perspective, cyber attacks are a major concern, and they are constant. There is no getting around that,” Dr Conley Tyler said.

“Espionage, political interference, increasing assertiveness in the region, human rights concerns, all have had a huge effect on the relationship.”

In July last year, ambassadors from 22 UN nations, including Australia signed a joint letter condemning China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

Mixed with Australia’s strong stance on Hong Kong and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to push for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19, plus tariffs, a fight over wine dumping and a passionate speech from China’s deputy ambassador to Australia, and pundits are now at the point of calling it a ‘cold war’.

“Where we are at the moment is clearly a bad place,” Dr Conley Tyler said.

“We’ve been in the diplomatic deep freeze for years now, where we can’t get any access to the government. Ministers will not pick up our calls.”

So can it improve?

Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney James Curran said at the heart of the diplomatic stoush was a wrestle for power.

“The essential drivers have been two-fold: Fears that China’s growing military power and reach would displace American hegemony in the region, along with worries that America under Trump was not showing the kind of resolve to help its Asian allies to counter China’s rise,” Professor Curran said.

“So those two chill winds – Chinese assertiveness and an America in relative decline – have been blowing simultaneously.”

The call for a COVID-19 inquiry was a big nail in the coffin.

Australia is caught in the middle, and to fix it will take time, patience and both sides coming to the table, he said.

“It is possible to fix Australia-China relations, but it is going to take both sides to do it,” Professor Curran said.

“Australia knows that it will need a prosperous economic relationship with China to ensure a decent post-coronavirus recovery.

“But there is some way to go yet here for this relationship, with more bumps in the road likely, and probably more frosty rhetoric to come”.

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